The European Union is open to any European country that fulfills the democratic, political and economic criteria for membership. These criteria, set by the European Council in 1993, and usually referred to as the Copenhagen Criteria, are the sole legal basis for the enlargement of the EU but, in practice, things are a bit more complicated than they may look, as the admission of new members requires the unanimous approval of all member states. From the political point of view, and seen from the EU perspective, in advance of each new enlargement, the EU needs to assess its capacity to absorb the new members and the ability of its institutions to continue to function properly. On the other hand, it is also important to state that the successive enlargements, that led the EU to increase from six to twenty-seven members, have strengthened democracy and made Europe more secure, and increased its potential for trade and economic growth.
By inviting ten more countries to join in 2004 and, then, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the EU put an end to the split in our continent, which, since the end of World War II, had separated the free world from the communist bloc. Turkey, Croatia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have been granted, in 2005, the status of candidate countries, and have started accession negotiations with the European Commission. Iceland and Serbia have recently applied for membership too, and other potential candidates include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
As the EU expanded to 25 and then 27, the member states prepared a new treaty framework to ensure the enlarged EU was able to work efficiently and democratically; during this process, however, it became clear that many in the EU had a number of concerns about its final borders and even about its identity. The case of Turkey has emerged as the best example of this debate, with many questioning its geographical location, political history and even religious identity. In spite of the clear criteria and the principle of openness already stated, there are no easy answers to these questions, as each country views its geopolitical or economic interests differently: the Baltic states and Poland, for instance, advocate EU membership for Ukraine, and the possible entry of Turkey will certainly raise the question of the South Caucasus countries; on the other hand, the political situation in Belarus and the strategic location of Moldova still pose problems, and it seems that there is a consensus in that Russian membership would create unacceptable imbalances in the European Union, both politically and geographically.
The European Union has, therefore, two parallel policies for handling its relations with neighboring countries, depending on whether they are on the current list of potential candidates or not: stabilization and association agreements, which open up the possibility for a country to become a candidate for EU membership at the end of the negotiation process; and the neighborhood policy, under which the EU develops trade and cooperation agreements with non-member countries in the southern Mediterranean and the southern Caucasus, as well as with countries in eastern Europe whose future relationship with the EU remains unclear. The recently established Eastern Partnership falls under the latter.
Through the Eastern Partnership, the EU is indeed moving to strengthen ties with six countries to its east: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The plan calls for increased funding for these countries and offers them the prospect of free-trade agreements if they undertake political and economic reforms. This is due to the fact that these are, in one hand, transit countries for oil and gas to Europe but, on the other hand, all face important challenges to democracy and the rule of law. Last but not the least, the EU is also concerned about stability in the region, especially after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.
Shall the good intentions be carried on successfully, the Eastern Partnership will therefore promote democracy and good governance, strengthen energy security, promote sector reform and environment protection, encourage people to people contacts, support economic and social development and offer additional funding for projects to reduce social-economic imbalances and increase stability. Regardless of a future application for EU membership or not, I am convinced that Azerbaijan has a lot to benefit from the Eastern Partnership and the opportunities it brings along, and a role to play in its success.
EU relations with Azerbaijan are governed by the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1996 and entered into force in 1999. Azerbaijan became part of the European Neighborhood Policy in 2004 and, on the basis of a Country Report published in March 2005, an Action Plan was discussed by the European Commission and the Azerbaijani Government and finally adopted in November 2006. The main EU-cooperation objectives, policy responses and priority fields can be found in the Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013 and in the National Indicative Programme, adopted in agreement with the Azerbaijani authorities and covering the period 2007-2010. These priorities include: support for democratic development and good governance; support for socio-economic reform, fight against poverty and administrative capacity building; and support for legislative and economic reforms in the transport, energy and environment sectors.
In the case of Azerbaijan, the area that has been inspiring more concerns among the EU players is, unfortunately, the one related to democratic development and good governance: governance issues, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of press and of assembly, remain fundamental concerns and priorities with a view to contributing to Azerbaijan's further democratization. Public administration reform and improved public finance and tax management are also considered crucial to enhancing institutional capacity and improving the transparency and public accountability of state and administrative structures at all levels. Linked to this, further investment in judicial reform is required to pursue the objectives of guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and ensuring the impartiality and effectiveness of prosecution. And all this should of course be accompanied by a promotion of citizens' rights and public participation in the political, economic and social spheres and leading to a greater participation by citizens in public life and in the control of institutional bodies and law enforcement agencies and services.
It must be underlined that all these objectives have been agreed upon by the Azerbaijani government, and not unilaterally imposed by the European Union. In one hand this gives hope for the success of its implementation, as these aims won't be possible to achieve without the commitment and the efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities; but on the other hand it also sets a standard to which the authorities need to be accountable for, and for the citizens ans civil society organizations to exercise their monitoring role.
At the inauguration of the recently established Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated that “the Eastern Partnership cooperation cannot be achieved without the representatives of grass-root organizations, trade unions, business and professional associations, NGOs, think-tanks, non-profit foundations, national and international networks – all the diverse actors of Civil Society”. But, maybe more importantly, she recognized that in many of the Eastern Partnership countries, and in order to be able to fulfill its role, civil society needs “more democracy, greater recognition and closer cooperation with the authorities of your countries; better legislative frameworks, more resources for their activities, easier people to people contacts and travel to the European Union”. This applies, certainly and at least, to Azerbaijan.
I would like to conclude as I started: the European Union is open to any European country that fulfills the democratic, political and economic criteria for membership. The road is surely long and winding, but getting to the destination depends, first and foremost, on the political will to undertake the journey. May I therefore wish you a safe trip! It is a worthy one!
(This article was originally written for the site euroaz.net